South East Asia's deadly Methanol alcohol
Posted by Stephen Whitfield
A current and very real problem
A good friend of mine (Let's call him Colin) recently went on a trip around the world, spending some time in South East Asia. What he wasn't to know was that what should have been an experience of a lifetime would take a severe turn for the worse.
In Laos, Colin visited Vieng Vang, an extremely popular party location in South East Asia, and participated in a ‘tubing’ experience. This is where people sit in rubber rings floating down the local river and drink at each riverside bar on the way down, receiving a free shot at every bar of what the locals called "Tiger Whiskey".
As you can imagine, he was having a great time until later on that day when he collapsed. His friends made the very easy mistake of assuming that he had drank too much and took him to a local hospital where he woke up at 1 am and was treated 'horrendously' by the staff.
The staff essentially left him alone in a bed for hours and his own girlfriend was tasked with putting him in the recovery position at one point. The hospital in Vieng Vang is accustomed to treating a large number of injured travellers who visit Vieng Vang specifically for a drunken tubing experience, but is also unfortunately known to be massively under equipped and of very poor quality.
The next morning Colin felt better and assumed the alcohol had passed through his system, however the following day as he was boarding a flight to Hanoi he knew something was very wrong.
“Within 5 minutes of being on the plane I could not control my breathing, I had a tight chest and a racing heartbeat. I then started getting cold and shaking and my hands started to crunch up, then I passed out. I woke up when we landed with an oxygen mask on.”
The doctors checked him over upon landing, stating that his heart rate and blood pressure were terrible. Once again he collapsed inside the airport terminal to wake up later in the airport hospital with tubes in his nose and doctors around him. Colin was then rushed to the Hanoi international airport hospital to get checked over which is when he was informed that he had been poisoned by methanol.
“The doctor told me it is the main cause of death in S.E.A. Basically I had to stay bed ridden for 5 days and drink A LOT of water. When I got home they checked my heart for a heart attack and at the moment I'm still getting blood tests as I keep having problems.”
What is Methanol Poisoning?
Colin had been poisoned by Methanol contained in the spirits he had consumed on his trip to Laos. This is a massive problem in South East Asia, where poorly brewed alcohol has the potential to contain very high amounts of methanol. This is extremely dangerous and can very easily be fatal when consumed. Thankfully Colin received medical treatment in time and that was an end to the ordeal.
Any dangerous activity you partake in overseas carries risks. Does your insurance cover you?
Colin was totally unaware that there was any risk in drinking spirits while abroad and he is not alone. Many tourists have no idea that the problem exists and as a result many young travellers are put in extreme danger. There has been an increase in media coverage recently, but unfortunately this has been a direct result of deaths caused by Methanol poisoning in South East Asia.
“Methanol has a high toxicity in humans. If as little as 10 mL of pure methanol is ingested, for example, it can break down into formic acid, which can cause permanent blindness by destruction of the optic nerve, and 30 mL is potentially fatal…”
Methanol- In Wikipedia. Retrieved June 17th, 2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methanol
Methanol is a by-product of brewing alcohol and is near impossible for amateurs to distinguish from the correct compound Ethanol. Traces of Methanol can be produced in any homemade alcohol; however concentrated amounts can easily be produced when distilling hard spirits such as Vodka and Gin. If these contaminated batches of alcohol are mixed with branded spirits or replace them all together, the risk of Methanol poisoning is massive.
“There are far too many cases of Methanol poisoning in South East Asia and this is by no means an isolated problem…”
Unfortunately Colin’s story is by no means unique and although he has made a good recovery, there have been many people who haven’t. Very recently a British backpacker died in Indonesia from Methanol poisoning after consuming Gin she had bought from a shop in Bukit Lawang, northern Sumatra. She too thought she was suffering from a hangover at first; however after being rushed into hospital following sudden blindness and convulsions, she tragically died five days later.
The unfortunate truth is that she drank alcohol from a bottle with branding of an official product, meaning it had either had contaminated alcohol added to it or was more likely fake. This shows that even sticking to branded spirits poses a risk, due to locals trying to save money by selling contaminated products.
What are the Symptoms?
Again the symptoms of Methanol poisoning very depending on how much someone has drank. A very big problem is that the symptoms can be similar to those of a very bad hangover.
Some of the symptoms of poisoning include:
• Excruciating stomach cramps
• Muscle convulsions
• Throbbing head ache
• Problems with vision
Again the more that is consumed the worse the symptoms become. Unfortunately some of the worse symptoms can take up to 12 or 14 hours to begin to appear, which means a delay in diagnosis and treatment. These result from the body converting the Methanol into toxic compounds like formic acid, which destroys optic nerves resulting in temporary or permanent blindness. Any form of visual disruptions or problems is a massive indicator that you need to seek medical attention FAST.
If untreated this can ultimately lead to organ failure, brain damage, permanent blindness and in some cases death. The human body cannot absorb Methanol and consuming any amount is highly dangerous, drinking any amount is completely inadvisable.
What should you do?
Possibly the worst thing about Methanol is the fact that it has no taste or smell. This means that when it is added to a clear spirit such as Gin or Vodka, people have no idea they are consuming a highly toxic substance.
As such it is advisable that you only drink unopened bottles of alcohol and avoid spirits all together. Sticking to beer is the safest way to go as you are gambling when drinking any spirits. It is extremely hard to tell if a drink is contaminated and frankly is not worth the risk.
“Not everyone takes the risk knowingly! It is all but impossible to distinguish a contaminated drink from a normal one”
If you choose to drink spirits in South East Asia; then stick to the big brands and unopened bottles bought from reputable retailers. However as in the case of the British backpacker who died last April, this could still pose a risk as locals can easily tamper with branded products.
The biggest risk comes when drinking unbranded home brewed spirits as these are most likely to contain the deadly substance. Even with main brands, labels and every precaution, there is always the risk of drinking a contaminated drink which can have horrendous consequences.
If you do feel any of the symptoms after a night out in South East Asia, then seek medical attention immediately. As the body cannot absorb Methanol the symptoms are likely to get worse without treatment, and the risk becomes higher and higher. The problem is treatable however the sooner it is caught the better chance a person has of a full recovery.
Please be sure to share this information to keep others safe when travelling in South East Asia.
This is a fairly unknown issue with horrific consequences - Please help raise awareness.
"Don't drink spirits in Asia, that's my advice" - Colin
Author Stephen Whitfield - Find me on Google+
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